Middletown

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Middletown means the average or typical American small city. There are places actually named Middletown in New Jersey, New York, Ohio and elsewhere, but this article deals with the ideal type, as presented in two highly influential sociology books by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. They studied the actual city of Muncie, Indiana.

  • Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, published in 1929.
  • Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, published in 1937.

The Lynds explained the name in 1929:

"The city will be called Middletown. A community as small as thirty-odd thousand...[in which] the field staff was enabled to concentrate on cultural change...the interplay of a relatively constant...American stock and its changing environment" (1929: p. 8).

In these studies, the Lynds and a group of researchers conducted an in-depth field study of a medium-size American urban center in order to discover key cultural norms and better understand social change. The first study was conducted during the 1920s, beginning in January, 1924, while the second was written during the later stages of the Great Depression.

Contents

Middletown

Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was primarily a look at changes in a small Midwest city between 1890 and 1925, the year the study was completed.

Although the book does not name the city (population: 38,000) in question, it was later revealed to be Muncie, Indiana. One criterion was that the city have a small ethnic population, because the Lynds were not prepared to deal with ethnicity. The problem was the the great majority of industrial cities of the right size had large ethnic populations. Muncie was an outlier.

The Lynds and their assistants used the "approach of the cultural anthropologist", existing documents, census and business statistics, interviews, and surveys to accomplish this task. The stated goal of the study was describe this small urban center as a unit which consists of "interwoven trends of behavior" (p. 3). Or put in more detail,

"to present a dynamic, functional study of the contemporary life of this specific American community in the light of trends of changing behaviour observable in it during the last thirty-five years" (p. 6).

The book is written in an apparently descriptive tone, treating the citizens of Middletown in much the same way as an anthropologist from an industrialized nation might describe a non-industrial culture. This gave a witty tone, and made big city readers feel superior to the folks who lived in the town, which added to sales. In this regards the book resembles Sinclair Lewis, Main Street and the amusing barbs of H. L. Mencken.

Overview of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture [1929]

Following anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers' classic Social Organization the study proceeded "under the assumption that all the things people do in this American city may be viewed as falling under one or another of the following six main-trunk activities:

  • Getting a living.
  • Making a home.
  • Training the young.
  • Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on.
  • Engaging in religious practices.
  • Engaging in community activities."

Overall, Middletown was described (like many other American cities of the period) as a farming community that, due to technological changes, became a factory town. The study aimed to examine the consequences of this change.

Working

In the 1920s the Lynds found a "division into the working class and business class that constitutes the outstanding cleavage in Middletown." They state:

The mere fact of being born upon one or the other side of the watershed roughly formed by these two groups is the most significant single cultural factor tending to influence what one does all day long throughout one's life; whom one marries; when one gets up in the morning; whether one belongs to the Holy Roller or Presbyterian church; or drives a Ford or a Buick....[pp. 23-4]

The study found that at least 70 percent of the population belonged to the working class. However, labor unions had been driven out of town because the city's elite saw them as anti-capitalist. Because of this, unemployment was seen among residents as an individual, not a social, problem.

The city government was run by the "business class," a conservative group of individuals in high-income professions. For example, this group threw its support behind Calvin Coolidge's administration.

Home and Family

Describing family life is a main theme of the book. 86% lived in a nuclear family arrangement with husband, wife and children (and occasionally other relatives too). Because of new innovations such as 15 year mortgages, even working class families were able to own their own homes. Home ownership became the mark of a "respectable" stable family.

Compared to the 1890s, family sizes were smaller, and divorce rates were higher. Most wives worked as housewives and parentage was seen as a "moral obligation" of all couples. Around age of six, the socialization of children was partly assumed by the public schools. A new trend was "dating" between two teenagers, as opposed to group activities.

Families did not spend as much time together as before. Chain grocery stores, refrigerators, and electric washing machines eliminated obsolete skills such as handling freshly slaughtered meat.

Youth

High school in the 1920s was the new hub of adolescent social life. Pre-college courses (like foreign languages) have given way to vocational education, preparing youth for jobs in business and as housewives. High schools were the pride of Middletown; very few had attended in the 1890s.

Middletowners usually praise practical education, and sometimes disdain academic learning. Teachers are tolerated but not welcomed into the civic life and governance of the city.

Leisure Time

New technology has created more leisure time for all people, most of this new time is passed in "passive" (or nonconstructive) recreation.

The radio and automobile revolutionized leisure activities, beginning about 1910. Listening to radio shows and taking drives are now the most popular leisure activities. Many working-class families formerly never traveled more than a few miles from town; with the automobile, they are able to take vacations across the region and visit far-flung relatives.

Sharp declines have occurred in as book discussion groups (and reading in general), public lectures, and the fine arts. Movies have created another "passive leisure activity". The most popular films feature big stars and deal in adventure and romance; more serious topics are less popular.

About two-thirds of Middletown families now own cars. Owning a car, and the prestige it brings, is considered so important that some working-class families are willing to bypass necessities such as food and clothing to keep up with payments. A person's car indicates their social status, and the most "popular" teens own cars, much to the chagrin of local community leaders (one local preacher referred to the automobile as a "house of prostitution on wheels").

Overall, due to this new technology, community and family ties are breaking down. Friendship between neighbors and church attendance are down. However, more structured community organizations, such as the Rotary Club, are growing.

Religious Activities

Middletown contained 42 churches, representing 28 different denominations. The community as a whole has a strong Protestant flavor. (Middletown was chosen ion part because there were few Catholics.) A person's denomination suggests social status, with the Methodist church the most prestigious.

Strong religious beliefs (such as heaven and hell) are fading out, a discovery that shocked the religious sponsors of the study. While the vast majority of citizens profess a belief in God, they are increasingly cynical about organized religion. Many of the clergy tend to be politically progressive, and as such, are not welcomed into the city's governance.

The more fundamentalist Christian churches tend to be more political and down-to-earth in their approach to life and in sermons. This is in contrast to the mainstream Protestant denominations, which tend to be more aloof and other-worldly. Overall, the city is becoming more secular. Youth are less inclined to attend church, but more likely to be involved with the YMCA and YWCA.

Government and Community

The city's "business class" - and therefore most powerful class - is entirely Republican. Voting turnout, however, is down; only 46% voted in 1924), partly because of the recent passage of women's suffrage.

The Lynds concluded the main reason for this apathy was increased cynicism towards politics, and politicians in general (politicians are considered by many to be no better than crooks). Moreover, the more skilled legal minds in town tend to work in the private sector, not the public sector.

Despite the good economic environment, there is always a small group of homeless. These people are considered the responsibility of churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army - charity is generally frowned upon.

Newspapers serve as the main medium of communication in the city, with morning and evening editions. Due to recent innovations such as the Associated Press, the papers are able to carry more news. Journalism tends to be more "objective", in contrast with the highly partisan papers of the 1890s.

Overall the city is highly, but invisibly, segregated. Although the Ku Klux Klan was recently kicked out of town, whites and the small black population live separately.

Themost important social divide was class lines: the business class versus the working class.

Middletown in Transition

In 1935, the Lynds returned to Middletown for followup research that appeared in Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. They saw the Great Depression as an opportunity to see how the social structure of the town changed.

While the researchers found that there were some social changes, residents tended to go back to the way they were once economic hardship had ended. For example, the "business class", traditionally Republican, grudgingly supported the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and accepted the money the New Deal brought into town. However, once they felt the programs weren't needed anymore, they withdrew their support.

The second study only used one-tenth of the researchers than the first, and as a result, it is not considered as in-depth as the first one.

Also, the second study is not as neutral as the first. The authors openly attack the "business class" and cite theorists such as Thorstein Veblen. They criticize the consumerism displayed by the citizens. They end on a strongly negative note, fearing that a dictator such as Huey Long or Adolf Hitler could conceivably draw support from such a population.

Implications

The Middletown study is often quoted as an example of the adage, "nothing really changes". Despite being conducted in 1925, the description of American culture and attitudes has remained largely unchanged. For example, even today, news agencies, when trying to figure out what the "average American" believes, occasionally visit Muncie, Indiana. Pollsters do as well - the city has, for the most part, successfully predicted the election of U.S. presidents.

This view was only furthered by the results of the second study - if the Great Depression was unable to cause major changes in the town's social structure, the implication is that nothing will.

While a growing number of sociologists and social critics (i.e., Robert D. Putnam) complain of less community involvement, their detractors point directly to the Middletown study. The argument is this: in 1925, observers were worried that new inventions such as the radio were destroying community ties, that morality was on the decline, and that the very fabric of American democracy was in danger. However, many modern critics repeat the exact same concerns as those raised by the Middletown studies, although these concerns have never come true. Supporters of the studies thus argue that every generation simply "reinvents" new problems without realizing that their ancestors had the same unfounded worries.

The Lynds were careful not to include any ideological biases to creep into the first study, presenting it as a neutral set of observations. However, more biased individuals have drawn from the study. To name just a few examples:

  • Marxists point to the "business class" and its ideology as the reason why workers and labor unions have never gained power.
  • Conservatives (including sociologists who followed the structural functionalism school) saw the study as a confirmation that a lack of change is good for society.
  • Critics of American culture, such as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, cited the Middletown studies as examples of the banality and shallowness of American life.

Criticism

The Lynds did not study the African-American population of Middletown. They justified this because this group only composed 5 percent of the total population. However, modern critics argue that this was a racial oversight conditioned by the era in which the study took place. A similar argument applies to the fact that they didn't study Jews who lived in the city.

Although the Lynds attempted to avoid ideology, theory, or political statements, the focus of their initial study can be construed as an endorsement (however faint) of Progressive Era politics. Also, the study is sometimes accused of being elitist and old-fashioned, as it seems to bemoan the rise of "popular culture" such as films and the fall of farm culture.

Because the study took an anthropological/scientific approach to Middletown society, and because at the time it was the first large-scale attempt to describe a modern town in this manner, some critics claimed that it was inherently condescending and degrading to the town's citizens. First, by treating humans as objects of study, they argued that it was immoral and degrading. Seccondly, they argues the study implied that its denizens were no more advanced than a primitive tribe. The study's approach to religion was specially singled out on this count. For example, in the introduction to the first edition of Middletown in Transition, the Lynds recounted an incident where town leaders placed a copy of the first book in the cornerstone of a building. Several pastors from the town's more fundamentalist congregations angrily argued that the book deserved to be burned rather than praised because of how it described (and, from their perspective, insulted) the town's religious activities.

The second study, in contrast to the first, is sharply political in tone and openly critical of American culture in general. Also, the Lynds made predictions (i.e., on the possibility of a future American dictatorship) that never came to pass.

Despite its title, there really was no real "conflict" within Middletown during the Great Depression. By the mid 1930s the authors were much more heavily influenced by the Amrxism rampant in New York City intellectual circles, and they assumed for the first time there must be a great deal of class conflict. They had trouble identifying it.

Above all, the Lynds were criticized for using one city to describe all of America. By doing this, for instance, they ignored the influence of larger cities, which grew in population throughout their era.

Bibliography

  • Bourke-White, Margaret. "Muncie Ind. Is the Great ‘U.S. Middletown." Life 10 May 1937, pp. 15-25.
  • Caccamo, Rita. Back to Middletown: Three Generations of Sociological Reflections (2002)
  • Caplow, Theodore, et al.. All Faithful People: Change and Continuity in Middletown's Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  • Caplow, Theodore, et al., Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (1982)
  • Caplow, Theodore. "The Measurement of Social Change in Middletown." Indiana Magazine of History 1979 75(4): 344-357. Issn: 0019-6673
  • Condran, John G., et al. Working in Middletown: Getting a Living in Muncie, Indiana. Indiana Committee for the Humanities, 1976.
  • Feagin, Joe R., Anthony M. Orum, and Gideon Sjoberg. A Case for the Case Study (1991)
  • Fox, Richard Wrightman, "Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture." In Richard Wrightman Fox and T. Jackson Lears, eds. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980 (1983)
  • Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Muncie: The Middletown of America. (2000).
  • Gillette, Howard, Jr. "Middletown Revisited." American Quarterly (1983) 35(4): 426-433. Issn: 0003-0678 Fulltext online at Jstor
  • Goodall, Hurley and J. Paul Mitchell. A History of Negroes in Muncie. Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, 1976.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. Magic Middletown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Published in association with Historic Muncie, Inc.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. Middletown: The Making of a Documentary Film Series. Philadelphia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. "Middletown Revisited: Social Change in Twentieth Century American Society." Old Northwest 1987 13(1): 47-65. Issn: 0360-5531
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Lynds Revisited," Indiana Magazine of History (Dec 1979) 75: 303-319, systematic analysis of Lynd's assumptions and methodology; online at [1]
  • Lassiter, Luke Eric. The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie's African American Community (2005)
  • The Middletown Film Series: "The Campaign," "The Big Game," "A Community of Praise," "Family Business," "Second Time Around " Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: WQED/PBS-TV, 1982; "Middletown Revisited, with Ben Wattenberg," Muncie, Indiana: WIPB/PBS-TV, 1982.
  • Rottenberg, Dan, editor. Middletown Jews: The Tenuous Survival of an American Jewish Community. (1997). excerpt and text search
  • Tambo, David, Dwight Hoover, and John D. Hewitt. Middletown: An Annotated Bibliography. (1988). External Link

Primary sources

  • Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1929. excerpt and text search
  • Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1937.

External links

notes

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